Category Archives: East Village

LIFERS

pic by Jack Warren

“You still playing music?”

Occasionally, a person who knew me in my teens, twenties, or early thirties will cross my path again in real life. I see them squaring two versions of me. Perhaps they recall the affable, energetic guy always in a band, walking the sidewalks with an instrument slung on his back, leather jacket squeaking as he totes an amp into a dive, hissy demo tape in his breast pocket. There he is with his Kinko’s-made postcards and flyers. Here comes his spiral-bound mailing list. There he goes, en route from his sure-to-be-temporary bartender gig to a rehearsal space. Behold another young dreamer come to Manhattan, rolling the dice like a drunken gambler, betting the farm, laughing at the odds.

pic by Jimmy Cohrssen

pic by Dan Howell

Before them is a graying, fifty-two-year-old man, decidedly not famous, healthy if not wealthy (actually technically poor), shoulders not quite so high, clearly settled into domestic life in rural Catskills obscurity, well-worn sensible shoes, utilitarian duds, limited options, no corona of celebrity glowing around his head, no evidence he has been sharing studios, stages, agents, and accountants with his heroes, as he creatively visualized in the 80s and 90s. Not a star.

So: do I still play music?

“Oh yeah,” I tell them. “Always. I will always play music. I’m a Lifer.”

“Of course,” they reply, often with discomfort, like they’ve accidentally insulted me. “Of course. That’s great.”

I get it. Perhaps they think the letdown of unfulfilled aspirations killed my desire to play. It happens. I know a few who dreamed with similar blind, public ferocity, and who, like me, ultimately didn’t make pro, at least not for the long haul. Persistent bitterness poisons their creativity well, they sell their gear, distance themselves from music like a recovering alcoholic avoids bars. They listen only to talk radio. Not pretty. The passion killing can be especially complete if a musician had a real taste of The Life, as I did. I spent a cumulative total of about eight years in which I stood in spotlights, garnered great press, toured internationally, and, through several income streams, made a living wage or better as a musician/performer. For various reasons – some of which I do not actually know – I did not sustain my membership in this small club.

But here’s the thing: now that it’s mainly for pleasure (but also for much-needed supplemental cash) and less an attempt at a kind of lifestyle, playing music is, in some ways, more enjoyable. And wouldn’t you know it? With the fame chase removed, I am a better musician, writer, and a far better singer. Can I thrash around for marathon sets, (try to) imitate Townshend, Springsteen, Cobain, Westerberg, et al, go home drenched in sweat, and bounce out of bed the next day to lather, rinse, repeat? I cannot. At least not without designer drugs and an on-call chiropractor. But I would pay more money to see me now than in the 80s and 90s, when my ace wasn’t necessarily skill, but energy.

That erstwhile me was certainly having fun deep inside a sweaty, amped-up groove, singing too high into a dented, beery microphone, leaving bloodstains on my pick guard, but… are the record company folks here? Or some other impresario? Or a bullshit artist claiming to be an impresario? Is tonight the night I meet my “Idolmaker”? My Brian Epstein (Beatles), Jefferson Holt (R.E.M.), Andrew Loog Oldham (Rolling Stones), David Geffen (Eagles), or Malcolm McLaren (Sex Pistols)? Is a powerful person going to fall in love with me, and/or see dollar signs, and help ferry me to the far shore? (Spoiler alert: no.)

I do not miss that element at all. My heyday was the pre-file sharing era, when giants roamed the earth. Record companies were still enjoying a revenue windfall from folks re-buying albums on CD. They were more flush than they would ever be again, Goliaths swimming in money, dispatching expense-accounted emissaries to all manner of venues to find the next _________. I cringe at memories of time wasted desperate for attention from these scouts, indulging dudes in satin jackets emblazoned with a record company logo, or some such sartorial ridiculousness. Kissing ass. Yeah, I did it, and it did me no good. Regret number 27.

I did indeed join a group signed to Island (home of U2), and we made an album (never released) at the Jimi Hendrix-designed Electric Lady Studios, but I quit soon thereafter because oh my god, y’all, the manager and singer were a couple of the biggest assholes I ever met. Ever. And their kind of assholery was not uncommon in “the music scene.” On the contrary.

Though I ultimately refused to share space with them, I admit I was fascinated by and occasionally envious of my enfant terrible peers. When an enfant terrible ascended, I originally thought belligerence was their key more than objective talent, and wished I too could so brazenly unleash my Id on bandmates and music biz folk. But while a compelling bad attitude didn’t hamper a trip down the garden path, it alone didn’t always keep one off the streets. (The aforementioned band, for instance, was summarily dropped by Island not long after I quit. A common story.) Those who matriculated to music (or acting, visual art, writing, et al) as a career, and remained there, were special, lucky, resilient, and tenacious. If they have one thing common, it was an allegiance with a simpatico soul who believed in them and took risks, an advocate who put their money where their mouth was. Assholery alone did not guarantee longevity, which is kind of a relief. More often than not, the few who “made it” were just consistently better in some way than most – including me – or at least more salable. And they had representation.

Naturally, these people are the minority of musicians I have known. The far greater percentage, like me, retained or eventually returned to day jobs, exiled from, or denied entrance to the big(ger) leagues. Shall we discuss why? Bad idea. Frankly, going down imaginary roads not taken, second-guessing and/or revising pivotal moments, doing the woulda coulda shoulda, makes for tedious conversation. (I would know.) No one but a paid therapist wants to hear it, and my guess is even they don’t.

Point is, years rolled by, and most of my music making, dreaming-out-loud peers, my fellow rock star wannabes, moved forward. As the writing on the wall became ever clearer, we abandoned hunting the white stag of fame, moved on to marriages, degrees, jobs, families, mortgages, layoffs, unspeakable losses, divorces, accidents, yard work, reversals, joys and sorrows, diagnoses, prescriptions, raises, pay cuts, et cetera.

In the warp and weft of these lives, my tribe of also-rans, I am very happy to say, just could not stop making music. Crushing disappointment, bearing witness to people at their worst, an obscene lack of appreciation for our kind from the world at large, and the cruelty of time could not vanquish our collective mojo. We say fuck you to all of the above, and make our music. Barring something unforeseen, we will continue to do so. We are Lifers.

pic by unknown fan

~

Like me, most of my Lifer peers got into music to be rock stars of some stripe, whether of the Led Zeppelin variety, the Nirvana/R.E.M. variety, or some other version, even the versions who disdain the term “rock star.” A few pals say that was not their intention, but I don’t believe them. To be sure, it is an absurd ambition to admit to. It bespeaks insecurity, a need for extravagant affirmation from unknown fans, delusions of grandeur, and an irresponsible tendency toward risk. But there you have it.

Having said all of that, if rock stardom were offered me today, I would take it. At fifty-two, with my son off at college, I am now ready. I am much more comfortable with saying fuck you to an asshole. Just putting that out there.

In truth, it may sound like sour grapes, but I often think being denied and/or turning away from The Life in my younger days was a good thing. The life I have made, while not without challenges, is pretty swell, and as years accrue and I stay vertical, I often feel very fortunate. One of the best aspects of this life is making music with no eye on a potential “big break.”

My fellow players come into rehearsal talking about their kids, spouses, car, the dumbass at work, aging parents, illness, their friend’s illness, the man who is putting down a new floor in their half bath, the horror of politics. But then we play, and all of that recedes. Amps buzz companionably, beers slake parched throats, pets wander in, laughter punctuates gossip. And the music is fun, even thrilling at times. No talk of recording a demo, making a CD, inviting the right people to a gig in the hope of advancement. We discuss the songs, the endless fascination of how our individual parts mesh; we compliment each other, and we argue a little. Time flies. We leave exhausted in the best way, and click back into our individual timelines with the heightened awareness music offers.

Recently, a rehearsal in a friend’s outbuilding went especially well. We’d locked in, and created joyful music destined to make local folk dance, sing, and be happy. At the end of a great rock and roll song, I looked around at my Lifer companions. Some had dreamed the Big Dream, and, like me, subsequently made peace with failure, and moved on.

“We are totally getting signed,” I said.

Everybody laughed loud, and joined in making fun of our ambitious erstwhile selves. I, for one, know youngster me would be aghast to witness his future in decidedly unglamorous circumstances. But I would encourage him to look closer, in the hope he would see not the failure he feared, but a seasoned musician surrounded by very cool, if obscure, fellow players, artists of great soul, skill, and generosity. Broken dreams and foiled plans cannot deter these people from making music. The young me would have no idea how precious and enriching such a life is. But lucky for him, he will learn.

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Perfectly Broken Southern Tour!

souvenir.jpg

Hello and Happy June!

I am prepping for my Perfectly Broken mini-tour through the South. Very excited to be doing events at Malaprops in Asheville (Thursday June 16th at 7 pm) Parnassus Books in Nashville, (Friday, June 17th at 6:30) and A Cappella Books in my old stompin’ grounds, Atlanta (Sunday, June 19th, 6 pm). I’ll also be dropping in on an Atlanta book club called “Reading Between the Wines.” They’re reading Perfectly Broken, and we’ll discuss it.

I’ll be posting all press clips. Watch this space. (And/or my Facebook page.)

More reviews have been coming in. You can read a great one from The Nervous Breakdown HERE.

Remember: if you’ve read the book and want to help out, you can (and please do) write reviews on amazon and Goodreads. Or just give stars. And of course actual word of mouth is still the best. Thank you.

Wonderful North Carolina public radio station WNCW asked me to send them a one minute audio file of me reading from the book, which they will use to promote the Malaprops event. Here ’tis:


On Tuesday the 14th, I’ll be renting a car and hitting the road for my first jaunt – 14 hours, give or take, to Asheville, where my brother and his family live. I’ll be staying with friends and family in every town. I expect Atlanta to be particularly interesting, as I’ll be seeing some folks I’ve not laid eyes on in 30 years – a combo of schoolmates from Christ the King Catholic School and Northside High School, members of what I have dubbed the New Wave Queer Underground, my family and friends, plus curious strangers attracted by the press.

I intend to blog as much as I can. Stay tuned!

RBW

Indie stores with signed copies of Perfectly Broken to ship to you:

LITTLE CITY BOOKS

GOLDEN NOTEBOOK

OBLONG BOOKS & MUSIC

 

 

In With the Out Crowd: Remembering My 80s Youth

“I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints / I am frightened by the devil, and I’m drawn to those that ain’t afraid.” “A Case Of You,” Joni Mitchell

kingtuts

King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut (latter day)

Queer folk shaped my 80s youth.

Many who shepherded me through crucial years were – and are – what we now call LGBTQ, but that term was only just being concocted back then. In any case, more than anyone else, they showed me how to recognize family, love, forgiveness, grace, and courage. Both literally and figuratively, they taught me how to dance.

It took a village, indeed. An East Village. 

~

In the way most people recall their college years, I recall my time with queer folk. While my friends were enrolling in BFA programs, I threw myself into the wind, traveling with hope. I headed north with a bass and an amp, landing in Manhattan to couch surf in the winter of ’85. The folks who caught me, cut me a break or two, had my back, and directed me toward my various destinies, were what we would now call the LGBTQ community. I learned more essential, useful life lessons from them – usually in a bar thick with beer-and-cigarette stank – than I ever learned in any classroom.

Playing bass in the East Village Orchestra, The Palladium, 1985

Playing bass in the East Village Orchestra, The Palladium, 1985

While none of my “scenes” had labels, distinctions can be helpful. To that end: my roots are in the New Wave Queer Underground of Atlanta, and the mid/late 80s post-punk/pre-Giuliani East Village scene. In each of these, it’s important to note, nobody delineated between “gay community” and “straight community.”

In my Atlanta years, bands, plays, art exhibits, and late-night hangouts teemed with all manner of sexual persuasions. For the most part, it was all fine, our own brand of same-old same-old. I knew some disapproving parents, but no tyrannical parents. (Quite a few “old hippie” parents.) I also knew some kids who harbored secret nonhetero tendencies, but they weren’t tortured by the furtiveness in which they couched their desires; they actually kind of dug it.

These days, when I see modern, troubled kids who must be talked off the ledge with the “it gets better” movement, I realize how odd my scenes were, and how charmed. I wish with all my might that one of those shamed, disaffected kids could get a postcard from the Rocky Horror crew, circa 1981. It would make them brave, and it would make them fight back.

Of course I see now that we were in a bubble. At the time it didn’t seem so, partly because, being kids, we were self-centered, and anything beyond our sphere did not warrant our attention. And the alphas among us were some of the most willful people I’ve ever known, to the point where the heteronormative standard (as we now say) was, quite frankly, effectively branded as insane. Being pretty heteronormative myself, I sometimes felt a little out of place, but not so much that I wanted to flee. On the contrary. I wanted to belong, I wanted to be brave like them.

~

Later, in Manhattan, at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, a bar on the corner of Avenue A and East 7th Street, a new set of offbeat characters welcomed me into another arty oasis. Together, in a lovingly tangled skein, we hung out, worked our money gigs, turned each other on to music, played in bands, and could not have cared less if he/she was intimate with their own sex, or whether he/she liked to wear, say, heels, or, say, combat boots, or dye their hair, or experiment. People uptight at our lack of concern – and of course, many of my peers had fled such folks – were the butts of our jokes, and we laughed our asses off at them.

Maggie and Doug, co-owners of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, hired me a few months after I turned 20. I’d been working midnight to 8 AM at the Village Copier for $5 an hour, and washing glasses at 8BC (bar-club on East 8th between Avenues B and C). King Tut’s needed a non-heroin-using glass washer/bar back. and my brand new bandmates Mark and Keiko, who I’d met through impresario-activist Jim Fouratt, introduced me to Maggie and Doug, who hired me on the spot. I soon graduated to bartending and bar managing. (Not being a junkie came in handy.) From that connection, from Maggie and Doug taking me on, I can now trace every major event of my life.

I’d come to New York a few months previously, reeling from some heavy girlfriend drama and family issues, and even though I didn’t consciously realize it then, I see now I was eager to find a way to be alone and to enjoy a community. I’d bounced around apartments, was unhealthy and depressed, and very close to heading back to Atlanta, but with the kindness of a few strangers, I found my way.

With my East Village scene, I found that balance of aloneness and community for a couple years, especially when the aforementioned Mark and Keiko let me (illegally) sub-lease their Ave B. railroad apartment. Tisch School of the Arts actor-in-training Peter McCabe become my great friend and roommate, and I was set. I paid my bills from cash I kept in a Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee can, and on occasion, I was happier than a pig in shit.

NYE

Bartending at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut on New Year’s Eve, 1989, with April Palmieri.

It was not wasted time. I played music, began to write, and spent many hours walking the streets of Alphabet City, often in the pre-dawn. With the Wah Wah Hut crew, I broke into the Pitt Street Pool to swim, and watched many a sunrise over Tompkins Square Park, the last Manhattan park with no curfew, where fires burned and kids a little less lucky than me camped.

Indeed I was lucky. In addition to being the recipient of the largesse of a few people, I was, unbeknownst to me, in the last wave of artists who could move to NYC and live cheaply. Within a decade, those days would be over.

As the 80s played out, AIDS ravaged my community. It still chills me to recall sick friends dying in their prime, to remember the feel of their wasting-away hands grip mine across a hospital bed. But when so many – including me – lived in fear of illness, or indeed, became ill, outsiderness remained a source of pride and power. We all hunkered down and embraced our outsiderness even more. Some of the braver ones marched on government buildings – the amazing ACT UP crew comes to mind – transforming grief and rage into action. Among other things, they shamed Burroughs-Wellcome into lowering the price of AZT by 20%. This was real, tough love. And it was a lesson.

There was so much love. Some at the Wah Wah Hut wished for stardom, but at the same time, were loathe to leave the love we knew in East Village obscurity. (Although one of two did achieve that stardom dream.) It was uncommon, this love, infused with, but sometimes beyond, sex; an amalgam of friendship, family, foxhole intimacy, erotic fascination, and besotted crushes, spiced with a healthy degree of disdain and pettiness, maybe a little bad behavior (OK, a lot) just to keep it lively. (We were kids, after all.) I think, in our hearts, we knew how special this all was, but we could not articulate it, and even if we could, we would not have done so because it would’ve been very uncool.

This era didn’t last, because these things never do, as this grumpy old man now knows. People eventually let go, or they fled; everyone, in their way, moved on, relinquishing apartments, turning the page on a life chapter lived with gusto and abandon. Some died, and we mourned them, and mourn them still.

When it was my time to go, I did, with my wife and son. My son was four when we left NYC for the Catskills, and he’s now nineteen and guess what? He’s finding his way among LGBTQ youths who are much less in the shadows than the queer kids I ran with when I was my boy’s age. That makes me smile. They shine, these kids, they make great art, they look after one another, and although I don’t say it aloud very much, lest I get a withering look, they take me back.

My short term recollection is starting to go. Mostly, when I meet new people, I can’t remember their names. It is vexing. But part of my memory is ironclad, at least for now: seems I will never forget the names of the queer and queer-friendly East Village denizens who took me in and/or steered me toward the better part of my life: Jim, Sally, Vinnie, Maggie, Doug, Brian, Jesse, Stacy, Kate, Richard, Byron, Byron, Luis, Itabora, Michael, Grace, Stan, Jo, Lucy, Annie, Paula, Denise, Monica, Effie, Ethyl, Wendy, Ida, Chuck, Curtis, Chris, Lady Bunny, Bob, Marleen, Baby, Mark, Keiko, Gerard, Bernard, Nick, George. They were all there to help me become me, and their names are on my heart.

~

(In this Nelson Sullivan video, shot in the Pyramid Club basement dressing room across from King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, I enter with my then-girlfriend Holly around 1:41. It’s 1988, and I’m twenty-two.)

The Last Straw: Halloween Grace

113stmark's

Our old home, 113 St. Mark’s Place, NYC

A thug stabs a teenager to death outside the Catholic school on our block. We stay. Gunshot to the face kills a handsome drug dealer on our stoop. We stay. A junkie O.D.’s in our basement. We stay. On the 14th street A-train subway platform, during rush hour on a Friday, a man who will never be caught shoots and kills our wacky, beloved upstairs neighbor. We stay.  

Shortly after we become parents, we watch the Trade Towers fall. For many Manhattan families, this horror is the last straw leading them to seek safer homes. Perhaps this should be the case for us. Especially considering 2001 is already the worst year of our married life. Pre-9/11, both my in-laws have passed away within weeks of each other, my wife has parted ways with her longtime employer, and, due to a lost eviction case with our landlord, we must find a new home. 9/11 is actually the cherry on top.

You’d think we’d get the hint, but no. We perversely cling to New Yorker-hood, tighter than ever. We’re still looking at apartments, living off hope, dwindling savings, and cash from the one bartending shift I kept when I became a stay-at-home dad.

For weeks, black plumes rise from the financial district, but we cleave ever tighter to the crucible of punk rock and possibility where, over the course of almost two decades, both my wife and I have become our current selves. We’ve suffered, but also, through skill, luck, and stubbornness, each of us has beat mythical odds, and experienced some dreams actually coming true; at different times, we’ve both made good money, or I should say, acquired remuneration doing what we love. We’re like compulsive gamblers refusing to leave the crumbling, squalid casino, because once in awhile, we’ve hit the jackpot. If that doesn’t root you to a place, what will?

Speaking of jackpot: one realized dream we share is our Manhattan parenthood. I love toting our son in a backpack in the russet-tinged light of the East Village. I love the immigrant women baffled by my stay-at-home dadhood: “Where’s the baby’s mama?!?” the Ukrainian woman yells from her stoop. (And/or the Indian woman, or the Ecuadorian woman. They cannot wrap their heads around a man doing what I’m doing.) I love foreseeing our boy coming of age in multicultural neighborhoods, where Farsi, Arabic, and Urdu pepper the air, where Richard Hell, Lou Reed, Allen Ginsberg, and Phillip Glass still walk the earth. This will be our son’s stomping ground.

We’ll find some way to explain to him the violence that haunts the sidewalks where he learns to walk. We vow he will experience the wonders of Manhattan, his bedazzlement overshadowing the horrors. We picture him becoming a city teen, meeting pals at CBGB, hanging out with his girlfriend on the tar beach of our roof. We are not easily dissuaded from these dreams. We are, in fact, professional dreamers.

The shock of 9/11 morphs into deep sadness; we decide to take a break from the collective grief of our town, and leave the acrid odor still wafting up from Ground Zero. We will spend Halloween in a secluded cabin near Woodstock. Our three-year-old will experience his first trick-or-treating in the famed Woodstock Halloween Parade, not the East Village storefronts and stoops.

I’ve not thought about pagan Halloween history in a while, but on the 31st, when we drive to Woodstock and see the crowds, I remember delicious details of this odd fete, details I learned at Enchantments, the occult store near our apartment, where I’d spent a little time buying essential oils, getting my cards read, and talking to the witches.

The urban witches at Enchantments told me the reason people began dressing up at harvest time was to disguise themselves from malevolent forces that run amuck in mid-Autumn, when omnipresent death of crops weakens the barriers between the world of the living and the spirit realm. Trick-or-treating would come later, but in the beginning, we donned costumes so these ill-meaning entities would mistake us for their own kind, and move on. Move on, at last. Christianity tried to squelch these powerful rites, and failed.

Anne Beattie said, “People forget years but remember moments.” I remember this: Woodstock Halloween Parade, 2001, air scented with apples and fresh donuts; my son, in a homemade ghost outfit, walks fearlessly among strangers guised as vampires, werewolves, zombies, all manner of pretend evil; in my mind, they are joyously keeping the real evil of the world at bay. This clear moment is, quite unexpectedly, the last straw: I see the promise of a new life, protected from wickedness by mischievous, benevolent spirits of the wood. An illusion, yes, but a powerful one. It bears me up.

Soon after, we leave our beloved, broken New York for good, and head for the Catskills, feeling blessed for the first time in a long while. The final straw is steadfast, pagan, Halloween grace.

Children Trick-or-treating

Me & RuPaul

RuPaul and me, ca. 1983

By Robert Burke Warren

Before I met RuPaul Andre Charles, I saw him do a stand-up routine on amateur night at an Atlanta comedy club in 1982. I was seventeen. A twenty-two-year-old RuPaul came out in pasted-on tassels and glitter. In front of an unsuspecting congregation of white frat guys and their feather-haired dates, he gestured to his get-up and squealed, “You like my outfit? Well… this is the front…” then, after a dainty spin, he added, “and this is the back!” It didn’t go over well. I recall feeling pity and fear that he’d soon be gay-bashed in the parking lot.

Almost two decades later I would see him do this same bit on his own national TV show, and it would kill.

A year or so after that night, I was forming a band with my best friend, guitarist Todd Butler. Todd had come into his own at the local art house theater portraying Riff Raff in the live floorshow of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I’d been playing bass in a punky pop band.

Through Rocky Horror, Todd had gained access to the new wave queer underworld of Atlanta, and had fallen in love with trash-funk band the Now Explosion and their back-up singers/go-go dancers RuPaul and the U-hauls.

Chrissy, RuPaul, Gina

Chrissy, RuPaul, Gina

One day Ru took the bus to Todd’s house, but unlike the cringe-worthy “comic” I’d seen, this RuPaul was charming and magnetic. The three of us fired up an ancient drum machine from the 60s and christened ourselves Wee Wee Pole – “like something a little kid would say.” In short order we appeared on public access and booked our first gig – opening for the Now Explosion at a seedy downtown club. We tore the roof off the place.

Within months we added percussionist David Klimchak – the only “functioning adult” in the band – made a three-song demo, and began gigging regularly. One memorable night we played at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, and RuPaul dared to voice what everyone was thinking, screaming from the stage, “Where’s MICHAEL STIPE? He’s so CUTE! I just love him!” Sadly, or perhaps not, Stipe was on the road.

Inevitably, we fell out with Todd’s mother, Betty Butler. Initially, she’d tolerated our rehearsing in the front room of their house; we’d spend after-school afternoons concocting a Prince-and-Blowfly-inspired new-wave-y funk repertoire, our sweaty sessions often overlapping with her coming in the door around 6, exhausted from working all day at the Shriner’s Temple. Despite – or perhaps because of – Mrs. Butler’s devout Christian beliefs, she accepted Ru’s screamingly obvious gayness, never even addressing the non-issue. As an added delight, the Butler family had a bursting, starch-sugar-carbonated-deep-fried-Twinkie-fied dream of a kitchen, which we were allowed to raid, no questions asked. One day, however, she overheard the lyrics (that I wrote) to a song called “Get Sexy” (“Perfume on yo’ cleavage, perfume on yo’ toes/Perfume on yo’ privacy, where everybody wants to go!”) and Mrs. Butler evicted us. We had officially tried the patience of a saint.

Regardless of minor setbacks, RuPaul went into promo overdrive. He Xeroxed fanzines about himself and wheat-pasted Wee Wee Pole gig posters all over Atlanta. One featuring a photo of him clad only in a loincloth was stuck on my grandmother Gammie’s street in a conservative Atlanta neighborhood. She was not pleased. (It would be years before I would convince her I was not being “recruited by the gays.”) It all paid off; soon our local hit “Tarzan” was getting airplay on Georgia State’s WRAS, we were opening for national acts, and headlining clubs.

RuPaul didn’t do much full drag in the early 80s. It’s expensive, for one thing, and he was dirt poor. He was an impressively inventive thrift store cross-dresser. I recall a feather boa wired into his short Mohawk, an oversize diaper, football shoulder pads affixed to his shirtless torso, and a pair of size 13 fisherman’s waders worn with hot pants.

On the downside, RuPaul could get pretty drunk and cavort sloppily onstage with drag queens while Todd, David and I vamped interminably on “Love Hangover.” I had no patience for that and I made sure everyone knew it. How I wish I had tapes of our band meetings from that time, just to hear things like: “Ru, you cannot invite Ty-D-Bowl on the stage with you, he ruins everything.”

The tech department at my alma mater Northside School of the Performing Arts had brand new video equipment and they were eager to do a live shoot with an audience of students. I volunteered Wee Wee Pole, worried yet thrilled at the risk. Ru did not hold back one iota – parading amongst the teens and dumbstruck teachers in one of his trash-glam ensembles, cutting loose with some over-the-top moves and cries of faux ecstasy, exhorting the spellbound kids with “EVERYBODY SAY LOVE!” I retain hope of this performance giving courage to some secret misfit kids.

I sent our demo tape to New York City, and from my grandmother’s kitchen I booked a Thursday night at the Pyramid Club and a Friday at Danceteria opening for Gene Loves Jezebel. Our fellow Atlanta scenesters took it upon themselves to warn us about “New York audiences,” clucking that the folks up there wouldn’t clap and perhaps might even boo, and not to take it personally.

We made the trip from Atlanta to New York City in one twenty-hour shot of continuous driving, done mostly by Ru, who once had earned money as a drive-away car guy and loved the open road, especially after he’d smoked a joint. It was late fall of ’83, I was eighteen, and the gigs we would play would be my last with the band. Athens, Georgia was calling like a siren.

Since R.E.M. had started their precipitous climb, the stock of the sleepy little college town had risen, and I was enthralled from 65 miles away in Atlanta, where I’d spent my whole life. Invited by well-established musician Vic Varney to start a new Athens band, I was drawn to the presumed depth and artiness of the scene.

(more about this episode HERE)

In spite of Wee Wee Pole’s success, I’d grown frustrated; I told myself we were destined only to do songs about sex, partying and fun, as if that was a terrible fate. I decided this was a bash I wanted to leave early, and a New York tour was a perfect swan song. But I told no one.

Wee Wee Pole arrived in Manhattan on a cold autumn evening. We crashed on the Chelsea apartment floor of Dan, an old buddy of my girlfriend’s mother. A former male-model-turned-professional-waiter, Dan was prone to walking around his apartment completely naked, which seemed fine at the time and caused no incident. In fact, his shower was in his kitchen, so there was no way around it. None of us took showers.

The next night we played the Pyramid Club on Avenue A in the East Village. Within moments of our first song, it was clear that the sizable Thursday night crowd loved us. With applause still ringing in our ears, we stumbled into the post-midnight chill deliriously happy, relieved, and nowhere near tired. Ru had begun some celebratory drinking and although Todd, David and I didn’t drink, take drugs or smoke pot, we all got caught up in his elation. Our good friend Margie Thorpe suggested the Staten Island Ferry as a cheap, touristy adventure. Excellent idea! The early morning hours found us heading towards the water, the band and Margie all packed into the van, laughing, giddy, afraid of nothing.

We parked on the ferry and found seats upstairs. The fluorescent lights and sad, dingy colors of the boat could not suppress RuPaul’s drunken gaiety. He ran full-tilt from bow to stern, getting right in the faces of the taciturn late-night commuters, crowing “JESUS LOVES YOU! YOU ARE SO GORGEOUS! WHO WANTS GUM? I DO, I DO!” Todd, David and I were still buzzing from the gig, and Margie was beaming so proud, we took no notice of some sneering Mean Streets-looking toughs who growled, “You gotta wake up to reality, man… wake up to reality!” FUCK THAT.

It wasn’t until we landed on Staten Island and went to retrieve the van that we noticed our tires had been slashed. We drove our crippled vehicle onto the Island, temporarily marooned. Ru’s high came crashing down and he moped and dozed in the front seat while we cuddled in the back. (Thank God for Klimchak’s credit card and for his wisdom to pay a little extra for insurance. He is the hero of our little tour.) As we awaited delivery of a new rental, the sun rose, our adrenaline dipped, and silence set in. In my memory, this was all part of the fun, an element of the adventure, but at the time I’m pretty sure it was a bummer. Except for the cuddling.

We slept at Dan’s most of the day and awoke in time to go play our Danceteria gig. I have no memories of eating. We kicked ass, and once again RuPaul had the crowd by the balls – in a good way. It was another triumphant night and I daresay we blew Gene Loves Jezebel off the stage. The next day we would retrieve our hapless new van – which had been towed – from a carbon-monoxide drenched garage and hit the road for home, satisfied and eager to relay news of our conquest.

Within weeks I quit. No one was surprised – my dissatisfaction with the band was no secret and there had been friction, complete with morning-after recriminations and apologies for missed cues and drunken lewdness. But if RuPaul ever bore me any ill will, I certainly never felt it.

The three songs Wee Wee Pole recorded ended up as side B of Ru’s first album Sex Freak, which you can find online for 50 bucks at Discogs. And/or you can enjoy these video versions from YouTube:

In My Neighborhood

Tarzan

and a live version of Body Heat, which was banned from Atlanta radio due to faux orgasms.

Ru and I would cross paths several times over the next couple of decades. After spending most of 1984 playing in Athens band Go Van Go, wanderlust overtook me again. I pulled up stakes and moved to Manhattan at the age of nineteen. In the 17 years I lived there, Ru would be a sometime-New Yorker and I was called in to play guitar and bass on his LP RuPaul Is Starbooty. We had a ball. The album is crazy expensive on collectors’ sites, but you can enjoy the track “The Mack,” featuring my fuzzed-out guitar, in this video:

After getting sober and hooking up with ace management in the early 90s, Ru’s star really began to rise. At that time, I ran into him on lower Broadway and he had a whole agenda laid out – hit single, TV show, book, movies. Within a few years, it all happened. And when my elderly Gammie called to tell me she’d seen his career-ma king spot on Arsenio – “I saw that RuPaul on the TV!” – it seemed a part of the natural order of things. RuPaul was a “Superstar In Exile” no more.

The last time I saw RuPaul in the flesh was during my late-90s years as a Manhattanite stay-at-home dad. I was carrying my toddler son Jack through the East Village in a backpack and there was Ru, dressed in a sharp suit, passing unrecognized through my neighborhood. He had all the time in the world for us. He’d had his hit single “Supermodel,” his talk show, and various roles in Hollywood movies, and at that time he was a popular morning DJ on WKTU FM New York, splitting his time between Manhattan and L.A. His freckled face beamed goodwill and happiness for me, and he expressed empathic joy for my new life as a parent, and even hope that one day he might be able to take on that particular challenge.

It would not surprise me in the least if he did.

More about Todd’s and my musical adventures HERE